Written By Kunal Dudeja
The cost of scientific innovation is often too high to help those who need it most. Enter Manu Prakash and his fellow researchers at Stanford University. Armed with the prestigious MacArthur fellowship, Prakash and his lab (aptly named “Prakash Labs”) are working to improve the world one invention at a time.
One invention, dubbed “The Paperfuge,” is a low-cost centrifuge that operates independently of electricity. A normal centrifuge requires the luxury of electricity to spin vials of blood quickly – a luxury many parts of the world can’t afford – in order to diagnose various diseases, such as malaria. Recognizing the lack of effective, yet affordable centrifuges as a limitation to public health, Prakash went back to California to begin experimenting with “all kinds of things that spin, including toys” . Prakash eventually found his solution from a children’s toy known as the Whirligig. Boasting an impressive 125,000-rpm and a paper body that costs under a dollar, Prakash was able to leverage the Whirligig to create a low cost, highly efficient device to centrifuge blood for detecting Malaria – and the inspiration doesn’t stop there.
Prior to his innovation with the Paperfuge, Prakash had a vision of a microscope that could be used anywhere. A fundamental belief in the necessity of microscopy along with dissatisfaction in the expensiveness of traditional microscopes led Prakash to develop his “Foldscope”. This device made from ordinary paper costs less than 60 cents to produce and is able to magnify contents to more than 2000x, allowing the user to view bacteria, protozoa, and human/animal cells . Again, seeking solutions in places that others don’t typically look Prakash was able to utilize origami and optics to create his foldscope.
While Prakash labs does conduct research on a wide range of topics from Algorithmic Self-Assembly to Organismic Biophysics, their work in what he refers to as “Frugal Science” stands out with its blinding sense of altruism and almost childlike inspiration. In an article from the Atlantic discussing Prakash’s work with what is referred to as “Shazam for Mosquitos,”  we see how being able to explore the full range of what is already available can be the key for scientific innovation - especially in the poorest parts of the world. The article discusses an idea fostered by Prakash and Haripriya Mukendarajan, a mentee of his. As Mukendarajan explains, “To fight mosquitos, you need to know where they are - which species in which places”  and a lot of work goes into trapping and identifying mosquitos. Realizing that each species of mosquito have their own unique buzzes, the two began to wonder if the capability of smartphones (of which there are 5.4 billion unique users world wide) could help record and track patterns of mosquito incidence around the globe.
Manu Prakash challenges both his colleagues and himself to explore the full range of what is possible, and through curiosity driven science to make the world a better place while they’re at it.
 Sofia, Madeline K. “Children's Whirligig Toy Inspires a Low-Cost Laboratory Test.” NPR. NPR. 10 Jan. 2017.
 MacCormick, Holly. “Microscopy for all: Stanford bioengineer shares his pocket-sized vision with kids of the world” Scope Blog - Stanford Medicine. 6 July 2016.
 Yong, Ed. “Shazam for Mosquitoes.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company. 31 Mar. 2017. www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/shazam-mosquitoes-cellphone-citizen-science/521505/.
 James S. Cybulski, James Clements, and Manu Prakash. 2014. Foldscope: Oragami-Based Paper Microscope. PLoS ONE, Vol. 9 (6): 1-11.